Part of Emylee Tolliver’s summer vacation was spent 1,300 miles away from Spokane in a town trying to work its way back from a devastating natural disaster.
Tolliver, an animal protection officer with Spokane County Animal Protection Service, volunteered her time in June to help with the recovery effort in Joplin, Mo., a community of just over 50,000 that suffered through an EF5 tornado on May 22. Gale force winds of up to 250 mph swept across a path one mile wide and 22 miles long in this southwestern corner of Missouri accustomed to turbulent weather.
A total of 158 residents perished in the tornado; another 990 were injured. Over 2,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.
Emylee Tolliver, an animal protection officer with Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Services, was among a group of volunteers from across the nation who helped with the restorative effort in Joplin, Mo., after an EF5 tornado devastated the town in late May. Tolliver cared for animals left homeless by the storm – overall, more than 1,200 pets were rescued.
Photo by: Craig Howard
Along with the search for missing persons, volunteers were deployed shortly after to look for animals displaced by the tornado. The American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals collaborated with the Joplin Humane Society to provide support for the town’s dogs, cats and other animals left without a home.
Tolliver arrived about three weeks after the tornado set down. Her assignment involved taking care of dogs in an industrial warehouse on the perimeter of town. When she visited downtown Joplin and the epicenter of the tornado several days after arriving in Joplin, Tolliver saw boats wrapped around trees and demolished cars perched in fields where cows once stood. When she spoke with residents, a spirit of optimism pervaded the disaster zone as citizens rallied to restore what was left.
“The ones I met, they were just trying to pick up the pieces and get things back together,” Tolliver said.
When she spoke with residents of the town, it was clear that retrieving any vestige of their former life – especially the family dog – would be a comfort. Witnessing reunions at the emergency shelter was one of the best parts of her time in Joplin, Tolliver said.
“There was so little to recover, that anything they could salvage was important,” she said.
In addition to cleaning kennels, Tolliver walked and fed dogs housed in one of the sites near the Joplin Humane Society. Some were still being treated for injuries suffered during the tornado; still others were coping with amputations as a result of the storm.
Over 60 animal protection agencies and volunteer from 44 states were represented in the effort. By the project’s conclusion, over 1,200 pets were rescued. In late June, the city held an adoption event at which 725 animals – accounting for all those remaining in the emergency shelters – found homes.
“I’m grateful to have been there to care for those wonderful animals and even more grateful that they all got homes,” Tolliver said.
Tolliver said donating her vacation time to help the cause in Joplin was well worth it. She hope to return to the Missouri town one day after it “has returned to normal.”
“I was glad to help,” she said. “The people there were so grateful. I hope I was able to make a little bit of a difference.”
In her work as a SCRAPS animal protection officer, Tolliver recalls the Ice Storm of 1996 in Spokane presenting similar challenges to animals, albeit on a far smaller scale. A pair of dogs were brought into the county shelter and saved after being completely covered in ice.
Locally, a group known as H.E.A.R.T. – Humane Evacuation Animal Rescue Team – has sent volunteers to a variety of disaster scenes across the country and played an integral role in rescuing animals following the Valley View fire in 2009.
Janis Christensen, the original director of the nonprofit group, also flew to Joplin shortly after the tornado hit. She recalls the formation of H.E.A.R.T. taking place after she and several other Spokane volunteers were part of the rescue effort in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It really brought the issue to the forefront,” said Christensen. “It was clear that something needed to be in place for animals.”
Nancy Hill, executive director of SCRAPS, said the support provided by volunteers like Tolliver and representatives of H.E.A.R.T. is an indication of “how much people around here care.”
“I think it sends a great message that people want to help animals – and not just in their own community,” Hill said.
Want to find out more?
To find out more about H.E.A.R.T. or to volunteer, call 251-1251 or visit www.pnw-heart.org.